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Engineer Brain Behind Designing Future Computer Processors

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During his doctoral studies at UC Davis, Aaron Stillmaker was the lead physical designer of “KiloCore,” one of the world’s first microchips with 1,000 processor cores. He earned his doctorate and master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from UC Davis. Before joining Cal State Fullerton this fall as an assistant professor of computer engineering, he taught at UC Davis and interned at Intel Labs in Oregon. Stillmaker also holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Fresno State.

What inspired you to go into your field and what was the defining moment?

I was inspired to go into computer engineering as a young boy. I started tearing down and building computers with my dad, an engineer who worked with computers. I remember one time we crossed some wires and destroyed a processor, causing it to smoke. From then on, I knew I wanted to do something with computers. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I had an aptitude for math and science, which pushed me towards engineering. 

What are your research interests?

My research interests are focused on the design of large processor arrays. Most people are familiar with the Intel central processing unit, commonly called a microprocessor, which is the electronic circuitry that powers their computers. Processors are everywhere — from mobile phones to automobiles … even toasters. I’m researching how design methodologies for processors must evolve as technology continues to advance.

How do you engage students in your classes and research?

I relate my real-world experience — in research and in industry — directly to the material I teach in my classes. I enjoy making a correlation between a topic and a real-life hurdle I had to overcome while designing a processor. To see students’ eyes light up, imagining their own futures in the industry, is rewarding.

What changes do you envision in your field five years from now?

As transistors — the basic building blocks of processors — continue to shrink and change characteristics, processor design is continually evolving. The industry must make a large paradigm shift, which will necessitate fundamental changes in both how computer hardware is designed, and also how computer programs are written to use this new hardware.

What is one fun fact about your field?

One of the first commercially available microprocessors, the Intel 4004 built in 1971, had around 2,300 transistors. A current Intel Xeon processor contains 7.2 billion transistors. This is over a 3.1 billion times increase in transistor count, while the area of this Intel chip is only 38 times larger. This is important since it shows the large change in the computer engineering industry in the last 45 years. So now the big question is: ‘How do we effectively use them?’